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On the Grind – What the Hell do I do Now?

What the hell do I do now?

I guess sometimes it just isn’t your day? There is nothing else you could have done? Keep your head up. You’ll get “em next time? As I’m walking out of the last PTQ of the season, trying to come to grips with the fact that I’m still not qualified, I try to find the right words to tell myself. But all that I keep thinking is, “What the hell do I do now?”

Coping with loss is one of the hardest things to learn to do in any sort of competitive activity. You’ll never hear Lebron say, “It’s ok, all we wanted to do was make it to the Finals. I’m happy with second place.” You’ll never hear Tiger Woods say, “As long as I finish in the money at the next Major, I’ll be happy with that.” Just as well, no self-respecting PTQ player should say, “All I ever want to do is Top 8. I don’t really care about winning the whole thing.” We play to win. To win it all. We don’t play for second, or for a money finish, or just for Top 8. But what do you do when you don’t reach your goal?

The first thing you have to do is accept the fact that you’ve lost. You can’t spend time wallowing in sorrow or lamenting your misfortune. Suck it up! The more time you spend crying, the more time you are wasting. You should take this opportunity to improve and get better. Take this time to reevaluate your season. From the minor details, all the way up to the large scale factors, go over the season and see what you could change to give yourself a better shot next time.

Learn from your Mistakes

Did you make any play mistakes? How many? In what stages of the game? Was it due to a rules misunderstanding or just a slip of the mind? Was it due to a crowd watching or maybe just your friends watching? What caused your lapse in play?

Everyone makes mistakes, but we can all takes steps to minimizing them. Playtesting is the first step. In every situation, a decision tree arises. The easiest way to know what is the right path to take is to remember what happened when you went down that road before. When you playtest, try not to allow too many takebacks. This way, the result of the “wrong” play will be engrained in your mind and you will be less likely to make that mistake again in the future.

When you are in a tournament, try to keep your focus on your game and on the play/plays ahead. It is very easy to get distracted when someone is calling you or if the match next to you calls a Judge or if your friend is coming up and trying to tell you his bad beat story during your match. But turn your phone off and tell your friend to go away to be quiet. Don’t be distracted by the match next to you, and try to keep your opponent from getting distracted by that too so you don’t waste any time. You can avoid making many mistakes if you can avoid being distracted by things not pertaining to your match.

I don’t particularly care or mind if there is a crowd watching me play, but I always appreciate it when my friend Kevan watches. Why? Because he catches everything. If you make a play mistake or even a play that could be questionable, he’ll see it and remember it and be ready to talk about it in detail, whether it came out favorably or unfavorably. I feel everyone can and needs to learn from their mistakes. Your play can improve mid-tournament if you can catch your misplays and not repeat them. This is especially important as the tournament progresses because you will start to face better players and better decks. Now, I’m not saying have all your friends watch you play and bust out notepads so they can catalog every single play that you make. Too many people can cause unnecessarily large discussions and arguments that could hurt more than help. But having one or two trusted and knowledgeable friends watch your game (when they’re done with their round, of course) and watch for any mistakes or questionable plays can help you tighten up your play and perform better in the later rounds.

Pick the Best Deck (for You)

How did you feel about your deck choice? Do you feel like it was the deck that best suited your local metagame? Did you feel like it best suited your personal style of play? Did you get enough practice in with the deck? Overall, how did you feel about your knowledge of the deck?

I am very much from the school of “Pick a Good Deck and stick with it.” I personally don’t feel that the average PTQ player has enough skill, knowledge or time to be floundering around with deck choices and calling infinite “audibles.” Peyton Manning can call an audible anytime he wants because he’s Peyton Manning. Every other quarterback in the NFL only calls an audible when they feel it’s absolutely necessary. However, other quarterbacks can still be successful because they know the play that they’re calling and they’ve practiced it over and over. This practice can make up for deficiencies because their execution will overcome the defense’s knowledge of their offense. Now, compared to the rest of the Magic world, do you feel you’re more Peyton Manning or just another guy? That should determine how often you switch your deck and how much you need to practice with it.

This is not to say you should only learn to play one deck and be Siamese stuck with it for the duration of the format. For some players, even picking ONE deck they want to play is a difficult task. Learning how to play multiple decks will help a lot in terms of knowledge of the format and metagame and generally learning how different decks interact with one another. Also, it is helpful to learn to play different decks if you want to assist in your friends’ playtesting. But come tournament crunch time, I feel that the average player’s time would be better spent playtesting and tuning one deck, from the archetype they feel most comfortable with for that format.

Oftentimes a metagame shift calls for adjustments. Sometimes it calls for entire deck swaps. However, if you want to perform well, I do recommend you stay within an archetype that you’re comfortable with. For me, making the swap from Five-Color Tribal Zoo to Naya Ranger Zoo was fairly easy, and obviously beneficial. While I was performing well with Tribal Zoo in the beginning of the season, the metagame adjusted and it was no longer a strong choice. After hours and days and weeks of testing and tuning, I came to the conclusion that Three-Color Zoo would probably be a better choice moving forward. This is a fairly easy swap, though. The swap from Previous Level Blue to Faeries might not be as hard as a swap from TEPS to Elves, but staying close to your play style (combo, aggro, control, midrange, etc.) would help reduce the amount of time it takes you to adjust and learn the new deck. Some people don’t have an archetype of choice and can switch from Elves to Faeries just as fast as they can from Tribal to Naya Zoo. Others are more comfortable with a certain deck style, and this piece of advice is primarily for them. Aside from actual deck matchups, the primary advantage an inferior player can have over a superior player is knowledge of the deck they are playing with. If you know your deck better than your opponent knows his deck, then you automatically have an edge.

Keep on Playing, Keep on Improving

How did you feel about your overall knowledge of the format? Did you feel that you got enough playtesting in? Did you attend all of the tournaments you could reasonably attend? In the end, did you give yourself the best opportunity to win?

This one is probably the toughest pill to swallow, especially for those of us who work hard throughout the year to qualify for the Pro Tour. But in the end, I feel that very few of us could honestly say we did everything that we could, from minimizing play mistakes to picking the best deck to maximizing playtesting to attending every tournament within reason. There is almost always something more you can do, and this is a very good place to start. Even by you reading this site and this article, you’re likely admitting that you want to improve your play and you want to get better. That is a good first step. Once you have identified your problems, whether it be mistakes or deck choice or just lack of playtesting, list down what steps you will take to improve in those areas.

Read more articles. Playtest more. Start playing Magic Online. Talk to friends and see if they’d be willing to make the trip down to a PTQ together. Attend another Grand Prix if you can (those are like double PTQs). If you feel that there is more you can do, within your means of course, then do it.

Magic can be a very mentally draining game. Playing one tournament for over ten hours can take a toll on you, both mentally and emotionally. Playing in back to back to back tournaments every weekend will add up for sure. If you feel like you are wearing down and near burning out, it is very safe to just take a mental health day. I am by no means saying that if you feel like you’re losing too much, then quit. Quitting is the last thing you should do. If you want to keep on top of your game you have to stay sharp, but you won’t if you just up and leave the game. However, if you are feeling burned out, or if you feel that a particular format is draining you, try to take a step back from the competitive scene for a while. (In between PTQ seasons is the BEST time for this). You can try to take on a new format that you don’t have much experience in (like proxy Vintage or Elder Dragon Highlander) or just Cube Draft. Try to play something that will remind you that Magic is about fun and not just about winning.

The thing that I love about Magic is that the game is constantly evolving and changing and there is always room for improvement. In the end, it really just comes down to how badly you want it and how hard you’re willing to work for it. If your priorities or budget dictates that you can’t spend thirty hours per week playtesting or fly across the country just to PTQ, then there is nothing you can really do to change that. But in the end, if you aren’t willing to admit your deficiencies and take the steps necessary to improve them, then you shouldn’t complain about the result. Be willing to change and improve or be ready to accept the same outcome.

Peace

-Jeremy Fuentes

3 thoughts on “On the Grind – What the Hell do I do Now?”

  1. A well-written article, Jeremy. I would like to add, re: the first section of your article, that there is some extent to which a version of the “Hedonist’s Paradox” comes into play. Constant focus on winning at the expense of other things can actually reduce the extent to which you succeed. I am probably biased a bit in the other direction, as I tend to overly emphasize having fun at tournaments, but there is certainly a median at which you maximize your chances of doing well by diversifying your focus.

  2. i agree w/ the note about the deck choice. seems like a lot of players i know spend -way- too much time trying to figure out what deck to play, while others narrow in on a deck (maybe not the _exact_ build but close) and stick with it. i’ll let you guess which set i see sitting at the top8 most frequently.

    cheers.

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